There may be no elections for local government institutions or provincial councils this year but that hasn’t deterred the major political parties from getting into elections gear in anticipation of these polls being held early next year.
The two partners in the National Unity government, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) find themselves in an unusual and unprecedented situation. They are allies in the government, but they will be competing for votes with each other at the elections.
It will be recalled that, at the time of the August 2015 general election, the SLFP was not a coalition partner in the government although President Maithripala Sirisena was President; it was a minority UNP government that was in office. Also, in the run up to the election there were direct contests between UNP and SLFP stalwarts both at the district and electorate level.
This time around, although parliamentarians of the two parties are not contesting each other, politicians at the provincial and local government level would be, while their ministerial colleagues would be working together in the same Cabinet.
The mainstream SLFP, under the leadership of President Sirisena, has arguably the toughest challenge ahead. With the President at the helm of the party, it will be keen to record a substantial performance, especially in the wake of competition from the SLFP dissidents, who will contest under the banner of the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP).
Towards this end, the President has already initiated one-to-one meetings with his parliamentarians, giving an ear to their grievances and instructing them to be prepared for elections at short notice. President Sirisena has also taken measures to replace Rajapaksa supporters with his own loyalists within the party organisation.
Previously, there was speculation that some SLFP ministers and parliamentarians in the government would ‘cross-over’ and sit as ‘independents’ in Parliament. There were suggestions that this would occur when the 20th Amendment was presented in Parliament. The 20th Amendment has now been all but withdrawn and President Sirisena- through personal meetings with his parliamentarians- has succeeded in preventing any cross-overs, at least for the foreseeable future.
The President is also acutely aware of the need to revitalise the SLFP’s grassroots organisations and election network. That is because a sizeable section of that well-oiled apparatus has been depleted by the defection of Rajapaksa loyalists to the SLPP.
In the months prior to the current impasse between the SLFP and the Rajapaksa faction of the party, there were some attempts by party seniors to engineer reconciliation between the two groups. These efforts have yielded no results largely because the dissident faction operates on the principle that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa should once again be considered as ‘first among equals’ within the party.
To do so would fly in the face of the commitments to good governance undertaken by President Sirisena and place the investigations into allegations of corruption committed by the previous regime in jeopardy. As such, the prospect of a ‘peace deal’ between the SLFP and SLPP is non-existent right now.
The arrest of parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa on Tuesday virtually confirms that there is little love lost between the mainstream SLFP and the Rajapaksa faction of the party. Hence, there is no political intervention that ensures that the Rajapaksas are molly-coddled when they are faced with consequences from the long arm of the law.
The SLPP meanwhile, is also getting its act together. It is now all but certain that the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP will opt to market themselves to the electorate as the SLPP, where former ministers G.L. Peiris and Basil Rajapaksa are the official leaders of the party.
Basil Rajapaksa, in fact, undertook a recent visit to Jaffna and the fact that the SLPP was concerned about its electoral prospects in the North was very much in evidence during this tour. Rajapaksa was to some starling pronouncements- that Sri Lankan troops may have ‘individually’ committed ‘crimes’ during the war and also undertaking to return land now held by the military in the North.
If those statements were meant to appease the electorates in the North, it is somewhat at variance with its strategy in the South- where it has not hesitated to drum up anti-minority sentiments, playing the communal card to the Sinhala Buddhist majority- a tried and tested Rajapaksa strategy.
This tactic has been given a new lease of life with the ongoing debate and discussion about the proposed new Constitution. Although the Constitution is still in its draft form, the Joint Opposition (JO), the grouping of the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP as well as other parties in the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), has already recorded its dissent.
The JO claims that what is being discussed is a federal set up and is keen to get the Buddhist clergy to back their call. They haven’t succeeded so far, with the Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter, Venerable Thibbotuwave Sri Sumangala Thera publicly stating that the assurances provided by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in this regard are sufficient to allay any concerns. It will be interesting to see how the JO continues this discussion in the context of the differing viewpoints it articulates in the North and South of the country.
At the other end of the political spectrum meanwhile, the UNP is trying to get its act together, mindful that its image has taken a beating in the face of the rising cost of living and the public backlash following the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the sale of Central Bank bonds.
The UNP is still upbeat about its prospects because it is aware that any division within the ranks of the SLFP will only split that party’s vote. However, it cannot afford to be complacent. It is anybody’s guess as to which party- the UNP or the mainstream SLFP- will suffer more from the burdens of incumbency, so the elections are likely to be a truly three-way contest, unlike the tussles between the UNP and the SLFP which the country has witnessed for many years.
Grand Old Party
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too has instructed the rank and file of his party to be alert to the possibility of a poll in the coming months. Analysts point out that despite being in power now and in 2001 and being the single largest party in Parliament, the UNP has not won an overall majority in a major election for nearly thirty years-since 1989. That is a sobering thought for the Grand Old Party. With the SLFP split into two camps, this could an opportunity for the UNP to regain its lost glory.
The left-of-centre Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) will also hope that it can cash in on the electorate’s general discontent with the major parties which have alternatively held power in the country for nearly seven decades. However, even under the leadership of Anura Kumara Dissanayake, it has shown a reluctance to move with the times and embrace more progressive economic policies and this appears to be hampering its electoral prospects.
It is now likely that Local Government elections will precede Provincial Council elections and will be conducted early next year. It will be the first real test of popularity for all three front runners – the UNP, the SLFP and the SLPP. While its results will not radically alter the balance of power in Parliament or within the Presidency, it will be a key indicator of popularity for these parties as they jostle for political supremacy- at least in the south of Sri Lanka.